Colchester, 3 December 2016
My latest picture features a Handley Page Halifax III of 158 Squadron. On the night of 12 May 1944 it headed for a target in Belgium – and did not come back.
But the crew all did, eventually.
The story was not one I knew about when I started making the picture, which is the opposite of how things normally go.
More often than not I am either working on a scene that I have had on my lengthy 'to do' list for a while, or I have been commissioned by a relative or an editor to make a picture focusing on a particular event.
In this case there was a peg of sorts - just a suggestion from someone whose parents were both in 158 Squadron during the Second World War. As she put it, "my dad was with the 'u bend em we mend' group, and mom was a cook in the sergeants' mess".
In that sense they were not affiliated with any particular aircraft. As I was minded to make a Halifax III anyway I set about browsing my books and the internet for a likely candidate.
By and by I stumbled across HX334, based at RAF Lissett in Yorkshire, which carried the NP-C codes of 158 Squadron.
It was shot down by a Luftwaffe night fighter over Belgium early on 13 May 1944 after bombing the railway yards at Hasselt - one of some 15 attacks on the same target in less than two months, as the Allies attempted to degrade the transport infrastructure in German-occupied Europe ahead of the planned invasion a few weeks later (D-Day, 6 June).
This was not the most successful operation as much of the ordnance apparently landed in adjacent fields and only a few bombs hit the marshalling yards.
Halifaxes formed the majority of the 111 aircraft taking part, and of the losses. Unopposed on the way to and over the target area, the bombers were however harried on the way out.
HX334, piloted by Fl/Sgt John Haydn Evans, was one of three shot down by a Messerschmitt 110, the others being LK883 of 426 Squadron and LV919 of 466 Squadron. Their attacker was not just any night fighter, but that of Oblt Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, recently appointed Gruppenkommandeur IV./NJG 1: the Evans Halifax was I believe his 63rd victim.
Schnaufer would go on to nearly double that number of 'kills' by the end of hostilities in 1945. As an aside, he became a wine merchant after the war until he was seriously injured in France a few years later when his car was hit by a lorry which spilled its cargo of metal gas cylinders. He died from a fractured skull two days later.
On the Hasselt operation the crew of HX334 all took to their parachutes. They were gathered, fed and sheltered by members of the Belgian resistance - a number of whom were subsequently arrested by the Gestapo.
The gunners, both Australians, were picked up by the Germans and became prisoners of war.
The other five, four Brits and a Canadian, all continued to evade capture until the advancing Allied forces swept over them.*
So there you go. It started out as 'just' a portrait of a Halifax. But as we know, every picture tells a story.
*If you want to know more about the pilot's story there is a book by Greg Lewis called Airman Missing: The True Story of WWII Bomber Pilot John Evans' 114 Days Behind Enemy Lines. Newman Books (April 2008). ISBN: 978-0955869907. Out of print but available secondhand.
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